Although Santa Claus, or Father Christmas, is the figure that all nations with Christian traditions associate with Christmas, one major difference exists between the Greeks and the rest of the world regarding the identity of the man who brings good children their gifts at this most special time of year.
In Greece, the Americanized name ”Santa Claus” simply does not exist, and children always wait for their beloved Agios Vasilis (Saint Basil) to bring them gifts on New Year’s Day.
The rest of the world knows Santa Claus as a modernized version of the actual Saint Nicholas, the devoted Greek bishop who lived in the fourth century in the Lycian town of Myra in Asia Minor.
Modern popular traditions both in Greece and abroad have associated the figure of Santa with a jolly, plump old man with a snow-white beard and a bright red, fur-trimmed suit.
Why do Greeks associate Saint Basil instead of Saint Nicholas with Santa?
The answer to this is really quite complex.
When we talk about the figure of ”Santa” in the way we know him today, we have to understand that he is a fictional character which was introduced to our lives relatively late.
The figure of Santa Claus originated from western Europe in the early nineteenth century, and his name was Sinterklaas, which is Dutch for “Saint Nicholas.”
Of course, Saint Nicholas had always been known among Christians as the figure who gave gifts at Christmastime, but it was only approximately two centuries ago, in the early 1800s, when the English folk figure of “Father Christmas” and the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas became one.
This convergence happened in the United States, where the tradition of the British ”Father Christmas” and the French ”Père Noël” merged with the figure of Sinterklaas of the Dutch.
Thus, the Americans ended up adopting their own term for the gift-bearing figure of Christmas: ”Santa Claus,” which is a phonetic derivation of ”Sinterklaas.”
This happened as part of a completely natural merging of traditions between many of the early western European immigrants who made America their new home.
The Greeks, however, had never associated Saint Nicholas with Christmas to such an extent as the Dutch and the other Western Europeans and Americans did.
Saint Nicholas’ main characteristic in Greek folk tradition is that he serves as the protector of the seas and the patron saint of sailors.
It is Saint Basil, whose feast day is on January 1, who was always remembered by the Greeks as the figure who bore gifts and helped children, the poor and the underprivileged around Christmastime.
This is not terribly difficult to understand since Saint Basil and Saint Nicholas were two figures who understandably had a great deal in common, as they were two very senior churchmen.
Saint Basil of Caesarea lived from A.D. 329 to 379, and was a near contemporary of Saint Nicholas, who died around the year 343.
Basil served the Church as the bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, and Nicholas was the bishop of Myra. Both of these areas were two Greek-speaking provinces in Asia Minor, in what is now modern-day Turkey.
Basil was known for his care for the poor and underprivileged and for his extremely generous nature.
Legend has it that tax collectors once overtaxed the people to the extent that they were forced to hand over all their jewelry to the authorities.
Basil declared that this was unjust, and forced the tax collectors to give him the jewelry so that he could return it to the people. Of course, at that point, it was impossible to determine which jewelry belonged to whom.
So he came up with the novel idea to bake cakes, with the jewelry placed inside them, and to distribute the cake slices amongst the populace. Each person received a piece of the cake with jewelry baked inside it, and the riches were thereby distributed back to the people.
This incident has never been forgotten among the Greek people, who forever after associated Basil with the tradition of gift-giving.
So, despite the fact that nowadays most Greeks exchange gifts on Christmas Day rather than on New Year’s Day and are more familiar with the figure of Santa Claus rather than that of Saint Basil, the tradition of this Cappadocian saint remains alive.
His figure might have been somewhat obscured by the jolly, red-cheeked Santa Claus, but his name is still there, reminding us that for the Greeks, it was Basil and not Nicholas who made holidays a little happier for those in real need.
Happy New Year!